Haghia Sofia church turned museum turned mosque, Istanbul

Istanbul - The Greatest City in Europe?

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 25th February 2022

Istanbul, Ancient Constantinople

As well as being the most famous city in Turkey, (though not the capital), Istanbul is the world’s only city spanning two continents. Istanbul is Turkey’s link to Asia, straddling the Bosphorus Strait, which links the S. ea of Marmara with the Black Sea. With 15 million inhabitants Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and home to 19% of the population of Turkey. Well that’s what Wikipedia says. Taxi driver Volcan tells me it’s home to 30 million, which is half the population of Turkey. Take your pick.

Istanbul is a relatively recent name for this huge city as far as the rest of the world is concerned. (It was previously incarnated as Byzantium and then Constantinople). Although Istanbul was usually referred to using this name by the Ottomans. It’s Greek, literally for ‘to the city.’ This ancient city was founded as Byzantion by Megarian Greek colonists in the seventh century BC. It was renamed by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, first as New Rome (Nova Roma) in 330 AD. Then megalomania set in and he changed the name to Constantinople (Constantinopolis). The city flourished with its strategic location between the Mediterranean and Asia and the Silk Road.

Historical Istanbul

The city served as the imperial capital for almost sixteen centuries: Roman/Byzantine Empires followed by the Ottoman empire. In 1923, after the Turkish War of Independence, Ankara replaced the city as the capital of the newly formed Republic of Turkey. In 1930, the city's name was officially changed to Istanbul.

Given its history and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s unsurprising that Istanbul is the world's eighth most visited city. As you would expect, this is a vibrant and multi-faceted city. I’ve also got to know it quite well, in my imagination, by reading Barbara Nadel’s fascinating Inspector Ikmen mystery series, nearly all set in Istanbul. In reality, this is my second visit to Istanbul. The first time was as part of a tour around Anatolia. Now I have a few days to wander and revisit the sights.

Sultanahmet, Istanbul

My hotel is a timber Ottoman mansion house, ideally located in the narrow cobbled streets of the old old town, on the European side. This area goes back 4,000 years. (The old town to the west is only 300 years old.) Non negotiables here line the refurbished (it’s ongoing) Sultanahmet Square area. This, as a whole, is a UNESCO site.

I'm having a late breakfast on my hotel roof terrace, overlooking the mouth of the Bosphorus, seagulls my steadfast and hopeful companions. It’s like being in Brighton. Ships wafting across the water. The magnificent Blue Mosque filling the window to my right. Sadly, it’s cloudy. Even the birds are shivering. I just had my PCR for the next part of my trip to Azerbaijan. Baku. The doctor comes to the hotel for 18 dollars. Very civilised.

The staff are ultra polite and friendly. The room is filled with dark wooden furniture and the walls decorated with 1930s style flower strewn wallpaper. The stairs reek. I thought it was drains at first, but now I’ve decided it’s Turkish tobacco.

The Blue Mosque

The official name of the iconic Blue Mosque is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and it’s an Ottoman era (1616) still functioning mosque. Hand-painted blue tiles adorn it's interior walls, and at night the mosque is bathed in blue as lights framing the mosque’s five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes.

The Hagia Sofia

Next in line, the enormous Hagia Sofia. For 900 years this was the greatest church known to Christendom. It was built by the eastern Roman emperor Justinian I, as the state church of the Roman Empire in 537. It was considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, then the world's largest interior space and amongst the first churches to employ a fully pendentive dome. Hagia Sophia became the model for Orthodox church form, and its architectural style was copied by Ottoman mosques a thousand years later.

The Ottomans rededicated Hagia Sofia as a mosque, for a time, but it was replaced by the Blue Mosque. In the time of Ataturk, it became a museum. But it’s now a mosque again. It’s huge and crowded.

The Topkapi Palace Museum

North of these two famous mosques is the opulent Topkapi Palace Museum (next to the archaeology museum). There’s some gorgeous intricate decoration and tile work in the four remaining courtyards that form the main structure. In addition, plenty of interesting and evocative explanation: the Grand Vizier’s Reception Room, the Hall of Eunuchs. The Room of Circumcision. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, there were 1,000 women living in 250 rooms of the harem here. It was the home of the Ottoman sultans from the early times of the empire, though later sultans preferred the lower slopes of the Bosphorus.

The Sunken Palace Cistern

There’s much more to see in this historic Sultanahmet area. Ruins of towers, columns crumbling walls and half buried mosaics lurk round very corner. And there are also the views of the boats and bridges across to Asia. South west of the Haghia Sofia is the impressive sixth century (floodlit) Sunken Palace cistern. (This is the largest of several Istanbul cisterns and was built by Justinian). It’s atmospherically lit and the water levels low, so that tourists can access it without getting soaked. But not during the time of Covid.

The Walls of Constantine

Volcan takes me to see a section of the walls of Constantine, which used to enclose the whole of the old city. They have crumbled in parts, or been removed to make way for other building works, but there are still sections with towers, gates and 12 metre high defences. They succeed in keeping Istanbul safe until the ottomans breached them, finally. It took them two months. Volcan says that this is the second longest wall in the world after The Great Wall of China. That comes in at 13,000 miles and Istanbul’s’ walls are currently three and half miles long. I think that is another piece of information open to challenge. Even Hadrian’s Wall is 73 miles long.

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

A favourite stop in the Fatih district (more than once) is the labyrinth that is the Grand Bazaar, with its tempting glass lamps and pyramids of bright ceramics. It's said to be the world’s largest covered market, with 64 streets, 4,000 shops, and 25,000 workers. It’s much too easy to get lost once you’ve wandered though one of the many stone gateways and GPS inside is hopeless. I have to resort to finding someone who can speak English when I want to navigate my way out.

But, even more compulsive, is the surrounding warren of open stalls and booths that spill down the slopes to the north. Textiles, clothes, (mannequins which are just heads or only bodies), carpets, jewellery, Turkish delight piled high and slabs of cheese. Stacks of roast corn on the cob and chestnuts dipped in chocolate. Boys in braided jackets stirring deep tubs of ice cream. This is where the Turks do their shopping. It's an absolutely huge area in all, utterly chaotic, frantic and fascinating

They lead, eventually to the cavernous (it seems that very little here is small) and vibrant spice bazaar, the Misir Carsisi. Visible from the bottom of the slope several more mosques – their minarets slicing proudly through the horizon. There’s the New Mosque, built in 1665! And the largest of them all, built on a third hill, the Suleymaniye Mosque, another classic Ottoman design.

Beyoglu, Istanbul

Beyond this, the Golden Horn, the grandly named estuary of the Bosphorus that separates the old city in Fatih from the northern districts on the European side – Beyoglu and then Beksitas of Football fame. Galatasaray is a little further on.. The main crossing is the ugly grey two tier Galata Bridge, which skims the water. It’s lined with seafood cafes along the bottom and crammed with men wielding fishing rods above. Though I’m not sure there’s much connection between the two.

Another slog up steep steps, (Istanbul’s built on a lot of hills,) is the Galata Tower. It was a watchtower for the old Galata quarter, which was surrounded by walls. It’s a well-known landmark, visible from Sultanahmet and a symbol of Istanbul. You can climb it, if you don’t mind still more stairs and the long queue.

North, past even more juice bars, restaurants and small shops to Istiklal Caddesi. This is Istanbul’s Oxford Street. But Istiklal is pedestrianised, the long lines of plate glass shop fronts sitting beneath restored Ottoman houses. It’s heaving and there are buskers and street dancing to distract the crowds from their shopping. It wends its way up to Taksim (Independence Square), weaving past churches, mosques and other buildings of note, as does the nostalgically old-fashioned tram, which runs through the middle. And it’s a long walk from my hotel. Thankfully, there are plenty of eating places there to choose from.

The Bosphorus Bridge

The Bosphorus is the hugely important, narrow, natural strait that connects the Black Sea (and the countries bordering it, which includes Russia) with the Sea of Marmara, and, by extension, via the Dardanelles, the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. It's an international waterway just 700 metres wide and 31 kilometres in length. And it forms part of the continental boundary between Asia and Europe, dividing Turkey by separating Anatolia from Thrace.

The idea of a bridge crossing the Bosphorus and linking Asia and Europe isn’t new. Darius the Great suggested it (according to Herodotus). Mandrocles of Samos once engineered a pontoon bridge across the Bosphorus, enabling Darius to pursue the fleeing Scythians and position his army in the Balkans to overwhelm Macedon. Leonardo da Vinci actually submitted plans to build a suspension bridge across the straits in 1503. But the first Bosphorus Bridge proper wasn’t actually constructed until 1973. There’s a Welcome to Asia sign.

I’m exploring the Anatolian side with Alex from Moscow, Tonya from Ukraine (they’re together) and taxi driver Volcan, who has put a trip together for us. We’re hugging the edge of the Bosphorus, en route, though Beyoglu, passing numerous more mosques interspersed with Ottoman mansions and palaces. The sultan’s summer palace, the Beylerbeyi Palace, is a peeling pale pink edifice just below the Bosphorus Bridge, The traffic is terrible; it’s very slow going.

Uskedar, Istanbul

The Turkish parliamentary republic was replaced with a presidential system by referendum in 2017. Since then, the new Turkish governmental system under president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party, the AKP, has often been described as Islamist, divisive and authoritarian. People are cautious about what they say. Istanbul is not only the biggest city in Europe, it has the largest court house and the biggest jail. Nevertheless, Turkey’s economy, is now the twentieth-largest in the world by nominal GDP, and the eleventh-largest by PPP. President Erdogan has a new palace up one of the hills here. We creep past it to the summit of the highest hill in Istanbul. It’s also the bearer of the largest Turkish flag. There are commonplace, fluttering on various hilltops.

On top, there’s a grand, if cloudy, view of both the European and Asian sides of the city. The Bosphorus winds beneath us, the Black Sea just out of sight to the north. I've discovered there are 3,113 mosques in Istanbul. I'm not surprised. The largest and newest is out here at Uskedar. The Grand Çamlıca Mosque was completed and opened in March 2019. It cost ten million USD to build.

Sweet apple tea to warm up. And a lokum (Turkish delight) shop, massively overcharging unwary tourists delivered here by their guides. I didn’t price it up properly beforehand. Rookie error. Nevertheless, the pomegranate and pistachio flavour is delicious.

Boat Trip on the Bosphorus, Istanbul

Back down to the Galata Bridge and a boat trip up the Bosphorus, to the second bridge. (there are now three bridges and two tunnels). We get to see the exquisite facades of all the Ottoman mansions and mosques we’ve driven past earlier and another fort. Mostly, from inside the boat. It's decidedly nippy on deck.

Turkish Food

Breakfast food is a little surprising . I haven’t exactly got what I ordered. I was given a very long list of items to place ticks against and I ordered omelette with cheese and mushrooms and a side of fried potatoes. I’ve got plain omelette with sliced luncheon meat.

With its café culture, Istanbul is also a great place for Turkish mezze and kebabs, meatballs (kofte) tender marinated meat, sesame sprinkled pide (thin Turkish Cornish pasties or calzone) and the salty yoghurt drink called ayran. Some say that that their cooking is second only to French. The Turks boast that it's the best in the world. It is very good, but it's largely meat based. and eggplant features heavily. I don’t think I will be squaring up to aubergines again for a while after this visit.

Next up, Baku and Nagorno Karabakh.

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